December 27, 1999
So the St. Louis Rams say.
So, they don't even try.
They don't even think about it.
"Our quarterback never calls an audible," Mike Martz, the club's offensive coordinator, said as the 13-2 Rams got ready to play Philadelphia this week on the second day of the new century.
"We just come out in the formations we like," he continued, "and run the plays we like."
The Rams beat Chicago that way Sunday when, ignoring the Bears' many novel blitzing defenses, they attacked furiously again to win again, 34-12.
The Rams' strategic approach to football definitely isn't that of the offensive experts who since the time of Hall of Famer John Unitas have insisted: "Take what the defense gives you."
That's too confining for Martz.
"The defense doesn't limit what we do," he said by telephone from St. Louis. "We're a multiple-formation team that's as multiple as we can be."
Thus, as halfback Marshall Faulk accumulated 258 yards Sunday on 10 runs and 12 catches, quarterback Kurt Warner brought the Rams out in every formation known to modern NFL man--from the shotgun to split backs--regardless of down and distance from first and 10 to third and long or third and one.
Respecting today's NFL defensive players, Martz, a summa cum laude graduate of Fresno State, said: "They're so aggressive that they've got you if you aren't aggressive too."
On most pro clubs this year, almost all of the innovative new ways of playing football have been shown on the defensive side.
Most offensive coaches have, by contrast, settled into conservative, predictable ways.
The offensive exceptions--the few that have repeatedly attacked the opposition imaginatively--are the Rams, the Indianapolis Colts, and at times the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and one or two others.
Of them all, the Rams have been playing the most wide-open football.
In part, that's because they have the speed for it: a fast back, Faulk, and four swift receivers, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl.
What it takes to play Martz football is speed.
"We do everything in a hurry," he said. "We get the backs out fast, and our quarterback gets the ball out fast, because our game is based on personnel matchups. If our third receiver is better than their third defensive back, we want to get the ball to him. Fast."
Swiftness is also the mark of the Ram defense, which is sometimes overpowered but never outrun--as it demonstrated again Sunday when a defensive end, Grant Wistrom, raced 40 yards to score with an intercepted pass.
Speed is the first priority of the head coach, Dick Vermeil.
"Power is out, speed is in," Vermeil said. "Since our first day in St. Louis (three years ago), we've been looking for explosive players, drafting for speed."
Vermeil's whole career is a study in speed.
In his second season at UCLA, where he coached in 1974-75, he had the Bruins in the Rose Bowl, where they upset No.1 Ohio State.
In his third season at Philadelphia, where he coached in 1976-82, he had the Eagles in the playoffs--and shortly in the Super Bowl.
In his third St. Louis season, he's led the NFC into the playoffs.
"At UCLA," he recalled, "I was a young man in a hurry."
The difference now is that he's an older man in a hurry.
It's sometimes erroneously said that Vermeil was on the verge of losing his way and his job a year ago--when he was 4-12 at St. Louis after a 5-11 start the year before--but the fact is that he was right on schedule.
Building jobs always take him at most two or three years--but they do take that long.
That's because he lays the foundation his way, bringing in, as a rule, but one kind of player: "the skilled kid who can run and is hungry to succeed."
Though that kind may be hard to identify in most NFL towns, it's a breeze for Vermeil because, he said, "In my years in college broadcasting, I got well acquainted with the great college coaches all over the country."
Today they constitute an informal but effective Vermeil network.
"When I call them up now," he said, "they know just what I want."
Clearly it's a little early to talk about dynasties in St. Louis, where until just the other day the Rams couldn't win for losing.
All the same, Vermeil might have more than a one-year wonder there.
Despite the perils of free agency, he seems sure that he can hold onto most of his hungry, happy warriors indefinitely.
"What I try to do is create an atmosphere in which nobody wants to leave regardless of (better offers)," he said.
That means making sure that every player knows he's loved and wanted.
Thus, the Vermeil family was socializing with the players as usual after work recently on what he said was a rookie night at the Vermeil house.
"My wife had 17 for dinner," he reported, adding proudly, "I did the barbecuing."
Afterward, he complimented "those with a fast reach."
It's the same with quarterbacks. The thing Vermeil likes best about new passer Warner is "his quick release."
The tumble of the 13-2 Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, when they were blown over by the 12-3 Tennessee Titans, 41-14, left the Rams as the NFL's most reliable winner.
That's regular-season winner.
The playoffs could well be something else for the St. Louis organization, which was dealt one of the league's bottom-club regular-season schedules this year along with San Diego, Chicago and the other 1998 losers.
To be sure, it wasn't their easy schedule that led the Rams to the top this season. Mostly it was their speed, skill and coaching. But the truth is that this is now a parity league.
And the Ram team is part of the parity.
It is a very high-order parity, as Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair showed Sunday with his five touchdown passes and scrambling runs.
The NFL's most feared scrambler, McNair, when injury-free, is capable of a multiple-touchdown performance anytime.
Five weeks ago when the Kansas City Chiefs lost a home game to Seattle, 31-19, they didn't seem to be a very good team.
Their conservative coach, Gunther Cunningham, was then still in his running-man mode, and the Chiefs were still batting .500.
Then Cunningham saw the light and unwrapped Elvis Grbac, the quarterback whose passes won four in a row as the Chiefs moved into position to win the AFC West in Seattle Sunday.
It wasn't to be.
The Seattle crowd won that 23-14 game between dead-even teams by constantly interrupting the Chiefs' offense with loud, unsportsmanlike conduct.
It's true, of course, that Kansas City crowds cheat, too, when the Chiefs are home--but this game was for the championship.
Although the cheaters could be nullified every week with electronic headgear, the NFL's club owners, who call the signals for the league, are apparently uninterested in fair play.
Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss' touchdown pass to fellow wide receiver Cris Carter Sunday will give Viking playoff opponents--the Rams among them, possibly--something to think about next month.
On a 27-yard play, Moss threw it like a quarterback as Minnesota rolled past the New York Giants, 34-17.
Those watching called it a gimmick play, but potentially it was much more than that.
It could be a regular happening in any team's base offense this season--as could halfback passes--if the league's coaches weren't so conservative.
There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires quarterbacks to throw every pass.
When Moss aimed that one--and when in other years Marcus Allen and Paul Hornung delivered halfback passes--every defensive player was shocked.
Anything different shocks, disrupts and often defeats football players.
It's the nature of the game.
The Denver Broncos were getting ready for next year when, on Christmas Day, their rookie running back Olandis Gary gained 185 yards as they drubbed the Detroit Lions, 17-7.
Their coach promises that in their 2000 backfield the Broncos will frequently pair Gary, a 218-pound breakaway threat, with the league's leading breakaway threat, 212-pound Terrell Davis.
The coach is Mike Shanahan, who last winter led the Broncos to their second-straight Super Bowl win.
Davis soon thereafter became the first of the six Denver starters lost to injured reserve in this lost season, ruining Shanahan's shot at three straight.
In 2000 he can make it three out of four Super Bowls with Gary and Davis, who block and catch passes at least as effectively as San Francisco's runners blocked and caught the ball when Bill Walsh coached the 49ers to their first three Super Bowl victories with the same kind of two-back backfield Shanahan envisions.
None of their rivals has two-back backfield talent.
And in 2000, Brian Griese will be a more experienced quarterback.
Most media people seem to be thinking of the long, long ago when choosing their all-century teams this year--often overlooking Deion Sanders of Dallas, who continues as the NFL's best active athlete and, probably, one of the 11 best of all time.
But New York Jets coach, Bill Parcells, didn't overlook him the other day when the Jets edged Dallas, 22-21.
On 21 New York plays, the Cowboys assigned Sanders man-for-man to the Jets' great wide-receiver Keyshawn Johnson. And not once did Parcells allow his quarterbacks to throw it Johnson's way.
Although Sanders is also the greatest kick returner of our time, most of his critics choose to talk instead about his lack of interest in tackling ballcarriers--as if tackling is the prime responsibility of a cornerman.
On running plays, truth is, the priority corner responsibility is to force the runner in.
And as you can see in every Dallas game, Sanders, though his team has some offensive problems this year, continues as the NFL's master of the force play.
Selected Short Subjects:
The New Orleans rookie who beat Dallas' Troy Aikman the other day, Jake Delhomme, was the seventh rookie quarterback to start for an NFL team in this transition season.
Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Shaun King, who won for the third time Sunday in four starts, may have learned more football in the only game he lost--the 45-0 beating at Oakland last week. That's because the Raider game was the only game he has played on the road, where he'll be playing in the playoffs if the Buccaneers make contact with the Rams.
Carolina Panthers' defensive back Rae Carruth, their first draft choice in 1997, is the first NFL player ever charged with murder.
The Baltimore Ravens' Brian Billick might not make Coach of the Year this season--but he deserves serious consideration. Nobody east or west of the Billick family expected the Ravens to be 8-7 at this point. A four-game winning streak has carried them to third place in the AFC East behind only the two powers, Jacksonville and Tennessee. And against Cincinnati Sunday, not even Billick could have foreseen the 22-0 shutout.
There might be only one East power today, Jacksonville, if Jaguar quarterback Mark Brunell hadn't gone down with a knee injury Sunday. Brunell is a contemporary leader in NFL comebacks. That's a reminder that the two injuries that most obviously influenced Sunday's games--Brunell's and the knee injury that sidelined Seattle running back Ricky Watters--could well influence the playoffs as well.
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